Open Pedagogy as Open Student Projects

Scholarly Bridges: SciComm Skill-Building with Student-Created Open Educational Resources

Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle and Jennifer M. Swann


Project Overview

Institution: Lehigh University

Institution Type: private, research, undergraduate, postgraduate

Project Discipline: Science Communication

Project Outcome: student-created textbook and course materials

Tools Used: Google Docs, ACRL Framework, OER Commons

Resources Included in Chapter:

  • Student Samples

2020 Preface

As we finalize this work for publication, our nation is facing a number of formidable and unprecedented challenges—the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide civil unrest, and an unpredicted, deep economic downturn—that together have brought our nation’s vast income inequalities into sharp relief. Financial stratification, fueled by racial injustice and compounded over generations, is exacerbated by disparate access to quality education. While financial aid helps close the gap, it rarely covers the full cost of textbooks and other educational materials, forcing low-income students to resort to used, outdated, or substandard materials. Open access textbooks help address this problem, providing high-quality educational material free of charge. Moreover, as we describe herein, adopting open access materials can be done collaboratively with students, simultaneously building a sharable resource and students’ ability to research and create educational material and assessment tools. There is no better time to start—we hope our chapter encourages you to try your hand at the process. And we encourage you to consider adopting open access resources at your institution. An advanced education may prove to be a critical factor in closing the economic gap and promoting racial equity.

—Carrie & Jennifer


As stewards of knowledge, researchers must convey their findings to the general public. Our current academic apprenticeship model falls short of this goal, producing scientists that are deeply embedded in the jargon of a highly specialized subject. While scientific contributions can have broad-reaching effects, the language, style, and format of scientists’ communication is often an obstacle in communicating with the general public. Writing for a textbook conveys a great deal of information to an audience that falls somewhere between expert and general public. This form of writing may prove a useful tool for broadening researchers’ perspectives and ability to communicate concepts in plain language.

An interest in embedding these science communication skills into an undergraduate science curriculum prompted educators at Lehigh University to incorporate open educational resources (OER) into an upper-level, writing-intensive biology course. Student-created OER are an ideal collaboration opportunity for library workers and teaching faculty: They offer students entry to conversations about scholarly publishing and metacognition, in combination with subject matter mastery and technological skills. In this chapter, a neuroscience professor and a scholarly communications librarian will describe our motivations, challenges, and collaborative approach to a student-created open access textbook and the pedagogical advantages of using OER as a bridge between scholarly and professional writing.

Adopting Openness

Open pedagogy, in its original sense of exploratory, student-led learning (Mai, 1978), is an opportunity to preempt the disengagement that comes from traditional lecture-based teaching by focusing on students’ individuality and agency. In higher education, the “flipped classroom” model, which involves moving active learning activities to class time and lectures to outside class, has become popular as a way to address student engagement and knowledge retention (Abeysekera & Dawson, 2015; Rotellar & Cain, 2016). Active learning strategies, including problem- or project-based learning, also help students understand and take charge of their own learning process, with built-in opportunities for metacognitive reflection (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes have an established tradition of lecture-based classes and thus have been a particular focus of open pedagogy interventions. Studies in numerous STEM disciplines including physics, biology, and geology have demonstrated that active learning improves student engagement and learning (McConnell et al., 2003; Wood, 2009), particularly for underrepresented minority students (Museus et al., 2011). Faculty who implement active learning strategies involving group work and project-based learning have found that collaborative learning approaches also benefit student engagement in course material (Huysken, et al., 2019; Wood, 2009).

Faculty across disciplines have also recently embraced collaborative writing—creating a document through student group work on a specific topic—as a form of project-based learning. In collaborative writing, students share both content and process, and communication within the group is critical to the creation of an accurate, readable document. The deliberate involvement of students in gathering, synthesizing, and explaining complex ideas generates a deeper knowledge of the subject and improves writing skills (Nevid et al., 2012; Shehadeh, 2011).

As covered earlier in this volume, the open access movement and concerns about rising textbook costs have jointly prompted an increased interest and investment in OER (see Holbrook, 2019; Colvard et al., 2018). Combining open pedagogy, active learning, and open access allows universities to import equitable scholarly sharing principles into the classroom, while also motivating students’ creativity and adaptability. Wiley and Hilton (2018) aim to define this umbrella of activities—active learning practices that take advantage of the Creative Commons licensing standards to encourage adoption, remixing, and sharing content—as “OER-enabled pedagogy.” By their definition, OER-enabled pedagogy refers to “the set of teaching and learning practices that are only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions[1] which are characteristic of OER” (p. 135). OER-enabled pedagogy connects students with openly available scientific research and educational tools, resulting in both new creations and new creators.

Finding and preparing low-cost or open educational resources can be prohibitively time-intensive. In Library Journal’s 2019 Textbook Affordability Survey, 81% of respondents identified “too much time and effort” as the top barrier to faculty OER adoption, followed closely by “lack of availability” (65%). Faculty have listed the difficulty in finding resources, as well as concerns about material quality and updates, as barriers (Seaman & Seaman, 2017). Having a class create or adapt their own open educational resources can address some faculty concerns or, at least, offset faculty time investment by incorporating it into assignment design and course preparation efforts.

Active Learning and Science Communication

The implementation of open pedagogy into STEM classrooms is a particularly salient need for students, both in the classroom and for their future professional and civic endeavors. Wood (2009) points to the dual role of introductory science courses, to both “attract, motivate, and begin preparing the next generation of biologists,” and to ensure that all students, regardless of career, “achieve minimum biological literacy and … understand the nature of science” (p.108). In the classroom, incorporating active learning with an eye towards students’ futures addresses both demands. In particular, open pedagogy is useful in tackling science communication, collaboration, and writing.

Improving science communication skills benefits scientists at all stages, from graduate students (Kuehne et al., 2014) to late-career scientists (Liang et al., 2014). However, even graduate students struggle to find the time and resources necessary to build these skills during graduate school—a key time of professional skill development (Salguero-Gomez et al., 2009). Kuehne et al. (2014), in developing a science communication program for graduate students, identify five core skills as necessary to successful scientific careers, from academia to nonprofit to private sector jobs: writing, public speaking, leadership, project management, and teaching. Active learning strategies, and in particular OER-enabled pedagogy, open STEM classrooms to developing these five core skills. In addition, Glaser (2014) argues for incorporating peer review into a science writing curriculum, because “to effectively teach students how to understand science, both the content and the process must be included” (p. 85). With OER-enabled pedagogy, students create and then share their work with an anticipated audience of peers. In addition to the writing itself, this practice requires discussion of the scholarly publishing process to clarify how the process shapes the content. For undergraduate students who plan to pursue additional science education and careers, practicing the aforementioned skills are important in preparing them for future success.

Students’ ability to engage the world as science-informed citizens is relevant, regardless of their future careers. Glaser (2014), referencing Habermas (1991), discusses the importance of building knowledge as a society through public discourse and notes that, “If lay people in a society do not accept the products or procedures of the systems’ sphere (science and technology), then the systems’ sphere loses its authority and its discoveries become meaningless in the context of the wider society” (p.91). Students, whether contributing to society as scientists or as laypeople, will need the ability to understand and to apply scientific concepts in a variety of contexts.

Next, we discuss how OER-enabled pedagogy was used to address both learning goals and open access principles at Lehigh University. Major learning outcomes centered science communication, in addition to professional and educational skillbuilding.

Project Background

Lehigh University is a private, doctorate-granting university with approximately 6,500 full time students and four colleges (Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, and Engineering) located in Bethlehem, PA (Office of Institutional Research & Strategic Analytics, 2018). Lehigh is a research institution; for faculty, the bulk of criteria used in tenure award and promotion rests on scholarly productivity. A Lehigh education is built on critical thinking and communication, and classes at every level include presentations and projects that require thoughtful analysis of scholarly works. As part of its general education requirements, the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) requires all of its undergraduates to engage in a writing-intensive course during their junior year. The requirement allows students to design their writing project with a professor, but the class must include five assignments and several rewrites for a total of thirty pages of writing.

As the CAS director of student success, Professor Jennifer Swann is acutely aware of the impact of textbook costs on Lehigh’s students. The professor has fielded complaints from a variety of students and parents indicating that the cost is a problem for all and that the burden is particularly stressful for low-income students. As part of the university’s commitment to American Talent Initiative (Friedman, 2016), Lehigh is committed to diversifying the economic background of its student body by increasing the number of students from low-income households. Professor Swann worked with Lehigh librarians to find alternatives to traditional textbooks and took an open access course on Creative Commons licensing[2] to learn about OER.

At Lehigh, conversations around open access and open educational resources have been most successful at the individual level. Select faculty have embraced open textbooks but usually on the individual or course level, rather than as departments, programs, or university-wide initiatives. The institution has no comprehensive, campus-wide program to fund OER creation, but the library has facilitated faculty workshops, librarian-led presentations, and individual conversations with faculty and departments. One library workshop on open access sparked additional collaborations between the scholarly communications librarian, Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle, and Professor Swann, eventually leading us to pilot this OER effort.

In the spring of 2018, Professor Swann’s project-based, writing-intensive course in behavioral neuroanatomy had an unusually low enrollment due to a registration error, which presented the opportunity to test a creative OER adoption strategy. Professor Swann had routinely taught the upper-level class by alternating between lectures and student research proposal presentations. The course was usually overenrolled at 20 students, providing ample presentations for the 14 week semester. As the low enrollment made this approach impossible, she changed the class format to maintain the project-based nature. Students produced open textbook content as their writing product, rather than research proposals. The new format still allowed students to build on their existing content knowledge and to thoroughly investigate a subject of their choice in more depth. It also addressed a secondary goal of adding to the scant inventory of neuroscience OER.

Openness was a priority in planning this course. The class began with a combination of lectures and administrative conversations, designed from the beginning to model openness. Students co-wrote the course goals, compiled a list of possible chapter topics, found and adapted segments of existing open access content, and drafted text. Students also developed assessments, creating test questions from concepts, then revising the text to shape readers’ conceptual understanding toward success in the assessments. In keeping with the commitment to openness, the class’ products fit the four criteria laid out by Wiley and Hilton (2018) to be considered OER-enabled pedagogy, students: both created and revised existing OERs (1); added value to the activity beyond the authors’ learning, by sharing the work in order to support others’ learning (2); publicly shared (or expected to have their work made public in the future) a version of their work (3); and applied a Creative Commons open license (4).

Engaging in OER creation also allowed students to learn about the current publishing ecosystem, its limitations, and change-making activities in which they can actively participate. Though the first class did not complete enough of the textbook to publish it, they were prepared to hand it on to future students for eventual open access publishing. The class was offered in the same format during the 2019 and 2020 spring semesters. Again, students contributed to planning and structuring the course. By the conclusion of the second course, students had completed one chapter of the open access textbook, with accompanying assessments, and drafted most of a second. The OER-enabled pedagogy model for this class fully incorporated active learning strategies: engaging students in developing course aims, charging students with first learning then teaching new content, and building critical thinking, scientific communication, and effective writing skills.

Library-Faculty Collaboration

Integrating library and instructional technology staff into the class from the beginning made long-term collaboration possible. The professor developed the course through consultation with a science subject librarian, an instructional technologist, and the scholarly communications librarian. Once it became clear that the small class size would offer the opportunity for experimentation, the faculty-library team met collectively before the course began to discuss course aims, strategies, and the logistics of student-authored content. Each collaborator then met with the students to present on their area of expertise: research strategies, technology integration, and copyright and academic publishing.

Library partners had the OER discovery, platform, and technological background to provide guidance from the beginning. The scholarly communications librarian focused on training and facilitating the class’ access to OER and on the related copyright, technical, and accessibility concerns. This included a presentation on the scholarly publishing cycle, OER, and an overview of applying copyright and fair use to the content students would be working with. Together, the students and scholarly communications librarian searched OER repositories for content related to the course and practiced using advanced search tools for filtering out Creative Commons licensed content on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Google image search. The science librarian visited the class later for a more traditional introduction to subject databases, as students searched for scholarly articles to update and supplement content. The instructional technologist introduced students to Bloom’s Taxonomy to assist them in writing assessment questions. All of the librarians were “on-call” for the rest of the semester when unexpected issues arose:

  • the students needed more training on scientific databases.
  • the class had questions about accessibility requirements for the published version of the chapter.
  • the group needed clarification about the formatting and technical requirements for the documents’ long-term stability.

As the second and third iterations of the class built on the work and writing of the first class, calling upon the existing library-faculty partnership sped up preparations and allowed for improvements to the class. For example, the copyright presentation from the third course iteration also included a segment differentiating copyright from citation, prompted by earlier students’ confusion. The team of educators worked to model for students how interdisciplinary teamwork could make a project more effective. The class then empowered student-scholars to create the content, which required that they would engage in teamwork, taking their individual strengths and existing knowledge into account when dividing tasks.

Feedback from the course evaluations indicated that students valued the collaboration with library staff. One commented that, “The multiple visits we had from library staff were greatly beneficial in educating us on the online world of publication… Everyone that came in and spoke was engaging and knowledgeable on the topic, which made asking questions and receiving answers simple and efficient.” A back-and-forth conversation, consistent with the informal, team-based approach of the course, lowered the barrier to student questions that may persist through one-shot library instruction sessions (Parks, 2019).

An OER for Science Communication Skill-Building

Pedagogical goals from both the biology department and the library influenced the class’ structure and effectiveness. In both arenas, learning outcomes in higher education reflect not only standards for subject knowledge but also the institutions’ goals for its graduates. Throughout their coursework at Lehigh, undergraduate biology majors are expected to demonstrate their ability to “evaluate data and communicate [science] results” and to “apply biological principles to new situations,” among other skills (Lehigh Department of Biological Sciences, n.d.). Of Lehigh’s class of 2018 College of Arts & Sciences graduates, 52% were employed within six months of graduation, and 39% continued their education. The expectation reasonably follows that a class of biology majors would be applying the departmental learning outcomes to various jobs and graduate degrees after graduation. By engaging students in a collaborative textbook writing project, this course helped students build their writing, science communication, and team-based project management skills in ways that would prepare them for graduate work, professional settings, and engaged citizenship.

The class structure heavily emphasized writing, project management, and teaching, all among the five core skills listed by Kuehne et al. (2014) as necessary to successful scientific careers, whether within or outside academia. In our class, students worked as a team to research primary scientific literature, parcel out writing responsibilities for different sections, develop assessment questions that reflected their perspective as teachers, and keep each other accountable to team goals. Not only did students need to manage their own work and mastery of the content, they also had to review the work of their classmates. This was accomplished using the editing and comment features of Google Docs (see Figure 1). Incorporating peer review at various stages of the writing process helped students understand how their classmates’ perspectives could shape and change their writing.

Figure 1

Screenshot of Chapter with Peer Comments

Screenshot of Google document on Circadian Rhythms & Metabolism showing learning objectives, course questions, and an outline of the chapter. Some text is highlighted, corresponding to comments from students and faculty on the right sidebar

Next, students had to figure out how to relay the content they had just mastered to a less knowledgeable audience—and then test that mastery. This ability to translate subject knowledge is a teaching skill, as well as an important foundation for science communication. Writing assessment questions proved one of students’ major challenges (see Table A1 for samples of test questions). The class focused on multiple choice questions because, when constructed to address concepts rather than facts, they require a deeper level of understanding to construct and therefore provide greater learning opportunities (Teplitski et al 2018).

In keeping with active learning principles, students generally worked on reading research and creating outlines outside of class. The bulk of in-class time was devoted to writing content, administrative planning, and discussing peer review comments. Project-based learning—combining topic mastery with the challenges of teamwork—is a situation that will inevitably occur in future professional settings.

This class structure allowed us to address both institutional and individual goals. As citizens, students will need the skills referenced in the Biological Sciences program goals: the ability to apply biological concepts to new settings. This class incorporated science communication explicitly into the undergraduate curriculum. Students worked, through the research and writing demands of this class, to communicate advanced scientific knowledge to a more general audience. By centering science communication as a prerequisite for undergraduates to move on to either graduate education or professional environments, this class primed students to take science communication seriously. In addition, by preparing their work to be open access, students actively engaged in scholarship and participated in scholarly publishing. The project-based collaborative writing process mirrored both workplace and scholarly practices, building communication skills that will be in demand in any career and in science graduate programs.

In planning course-based student engagement, Lehigh’s librarians regularly use the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy, which encourages the pedagogical application of scholarship as a conversation and information creation as a process (American Library Association, 2015). Students entering the class had a minimal understanding of the scholarly publishing process. To address this, the librarian’s copyright instruction also included an overview of peer review and publishing. Our students applied these discussions by both writing as a team and, in the second iteration of the course, reviewing the work of the first class for accuracy and completeness. In writing the textbook, students had to engage as scholars to understand their source material, and they were required to develop skills for conveying that material to non-specialist audiences. An example of students’ writing process can be seen in how the chapter’s learning outcomes changed (see Table A2 for a side-by-side comparison of chapter drafts). In the students’ original brainstorm document, they appeared as follows:

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this chapter the reader will be able to:

  • Characterize a circadian rhythm and describe the brain regions and genes involved.

  • Explain the rhythm of metabolism and how this plays into the overall circadian rhythm of the organism.

  • Propose solutions to mishaps in this system.

In the final chapter, the learning outcomes are listed as follows:

Learning Outcomes

In this chapter you will learn:

  1. the defining characteristics of circadian rhythms

  2. the molecular machinery that runs cellular rhythms in mammals and insects

  3. the neural structures that regulate and coordinate our behavioral expression of circadian rhythmicity

  4. the role of circadian rhythms in health and disease.

The later learning outcomes reflect students’ deeper understanding of the subject matter, in addition to their improved abilities to organize the material in a logical manner, write with clarity, and understand their audience as learners.

Students explicitly mentioned the intended outcomes in their course evaluation. One student credited the textbook-writing process with improving their writing, sharing that “From this class, I learned how to be a better writer by taking what I’ve read and paraphrasing it down into understandable material for wider audiences.” The student also commented more generally on writing improvement and the assessment-writing exercises, saying “I was also able to become a better editor, to more easily pinpoint mistakes and room for improvement, and turn the information I’ve written into thoughtful questions.” Another student pointed to the in-depth topic analysis as an effective strategy for learning content, saying, “I know more about the material we covered during this one semester than the combination of all my other science classes over the past four years.” Students also valued the explicit open mission of the class. One commented that creating and publishing an OER “gave this class a positive mission and made me feel good about what we are doing.” The student evaluations, in combination with the products of their work, help build an argument for open educational resources adoption in a project-based learning environment.

Challenges and Future Directions

The first iteration of the course revealed some immediate limitations and the need to adjust expectations. The initial plan was to cover a range of topics, dedicating several weeks to each topic and building textbook chapters from each one. However, the writing process was much slower than expected, limiting the topic coverage that the class was able to achieve. In the future, we plan to continue building upon students’ work over subsequent semesters by both drafting new chapters and revising and updating existing content. The chapter is currently posted on the sharing network OER Commons[3] and is slated to undergo peer review by the MERLOT biology community of scholars.

The class addresses a number of common skill sets and learning outcomes that appear frequently in undergraduate teaching: student writing and editing; critical thinking, including evaluating and communicating scientific information; and cooperative or team-based learning. In looking to expand this course model to other subjects or institutions, there are several criteria to consider. First, the collaborative peer writing model for this course was structured for very small classes of 4–5 students (an exceptionally small size for Biology classes at Lehigh University). If not taught in a seminar-style setting, the organizational burden for faculty would likely expand dramatically. However, the elements of group work, in-depth topic exploration, collaborative writing, and assessment-crafting could all be incorporated with some adjustments. For example, students in a larger class could work in small groups to draft chapters or segments, then review the content across groups.[4] Another consideration is the type of class that would be a good candidate for this work. Our class is an upper-level writing-intensive class with a secondary goal of teaching neuroanatomy. It is an elective, not a survey, and doesn’t serve as a prerequisite for any other classes. Students bring their existing content knowledge to a project-based setting to solve a problem. Therefore, writing skill development takes precedence over the breadth of content covered. In exporting this class to another institution, writing-focused and elective classes would make better candidates.

Secondly, any faculty interested in adopting this method should consider their existing background (or interest in developing expertise) in OER use, Creative Commons licensing, or both. Consulting or co-teaching with library workers is highly recommended. Our team developed an OER brainstorm document to assist other faculty and librarians in planning for OER use.[5] When the OER use includes substantial modification or creating new content, particularly as an OER-enabled pedagogy effort, faculty will also need to consider writing platforms. We used Google Docs to draft and share content, which has an added advantage of easily exporting to OER Commons, our eventual sharing platform of choice. The platform should be flexible enough to accommodate both multiple writers and any multimedia that the class wishes to incorporate into the OER. Other educators investigating the benefits of collaborative writing have utilized “wikis”—editable knowledge-based websites—as platforms for student writing projects (Trentin, 2009). While wikis also employ OER pedagogy, they do not easily offer the opportunity for students to create assessments. The quiz questions embedded in textbook chapters provide essential feedback for the reader and unique opportunities for learning for the students that create them (Teplitski et al., 2018; Lujan & DiCarlo, 2014). These were a priority for us in determining a platform.

Thirdly, institutions play a critical role in guiding faculty publications: faculty produce what will grant them tenure and promotion. The value of open access journals has been under discussion in higher education for many years (Fister, 2013). Hopefully, as the understanding and adoption of these principles advances, the conversation will move towards OER as well. Moving an institution towards valuing OER work and encouraging faculty creation of OER would require granting OER chapters publication status in tenure and promotion documents, rostering OER courses as part of the teaching load, and funding or providing release time for OER creation. In addition, institutions that highly value teaching and students’ classroom experience may see additional value in classes that incorporate OER-enabled pedagogy.

Overall, the course was a helpful bridge between our students’ undergraduate work and future academic or professional pathways. A collaboration that called upon the expertise of both teaching faculty and librarians expanded the outlook of the course. Students, in addition to learning the subject matter, developed skills for science communication to serve them as scientists, professionals, and citizens. They also developed an understanding of the scholarly ecosystem with communication and project management skills that are highly valued in multiple settings, regardless of their future career paths. Finally, by incorporating learning approaches prioritized by both library and disciplinary experts, the teaching faculty-librarian team expanded on opportunities for students through collaborative expertise.



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Contact Information

Author Jennifer M. Swann may be contacted at

Feedback, suggestions, or conversation about this chapter may be shared via our Rebus Community Discussion Page.



Student Work Samples

Table A1

Assessment Question Samples

This table presents a sample of how student work changed over the course of the semester. The early drafts of assessment questions (left column) are from the beginning of the second iteration of the class. The final drafts of assessment questions (right column) are from the version that was published to OER Commons. Correct answers are in bold and marked as (C).

Early draft of assessment questions

Final draft of assessment questions

When are TIM and PER are broken down when their levels are rising? What happens as a result of their break down when levels are rising?

  • Late in the day; the clock is set back (C)
  • Late in the day; the clock is set ahead
  • Late at night; the clock is set back
  • Late at night: the clock is set ahead
Which of the following is true regarding PER/TIM activity in Drosophila after PER/TIM inhibition of gene expression is lifted?

  • When PER/TIM levels rise, the clock is set ahead.
  • When PER/TIM levels rise, the clock is set back. (C)
  • When PER/TIM levels decline, the clock is set back.
  • PER/TIM levels have no correlation with setting the circadian clock.
Why do blind mice have a hard time keeping their circadian clock on time?

    1. They do not: 1–2% of the ganglion cells in their retina—instead of depending on signals arriving from rods and/or cones—detect light directly.
    2. They do not: When exposed to light, these ganglion cells become depolarized and send their signals back to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).
    3. Because they do not have rods or cones, which are necessary to detect light
    4. Both 1 and 2 (C)
Why are mice who are totally blind able to keep their circadian clock on time?

  • Because the ganglion cells in the retina depend only on signals from rods and cones
  • Because 1-2% of ganglion cells in the retina can detect light directly (C)
  • Circadian clock has nothing to do with the retina at all


Table A2

Introductory Segment of OER Chapter on Circadian Rhythms

This table presents a sample of how student work changed over the course of the semester. The early draft (left column) is from the beginning of the second iteration of the class. The initial draft was adapted from the open textbook Kimball’s Biology Pages.[6] The final draft (right column) is from the version that was published to OER Commons.

Early draft:

Final draft:

All eukaryotes and some microbes (e.g., cyanobacteria) display changes in gene activity, biochemistry, physiology, and behavior that wax and wane through the cycle of days and nights.


  • the level of the hormone melatonin that rises in your body during the night and falls during the day.
  • fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) hatch in greatest numbers just at dawn.

Fluctuations in physiological and behavioral parameters can be generated by a variety of conditions internal and external to the organism. Biological rhythms vary in period from micro-seconds – as shown in spontaneously firing neurons hindmarsh-rose neuron to years as in the annual rhythm of hibernation of the Golden-mantled ground squirrel.






Biological Clocks

We live in a rhythmic world. The earth turns on its axis, presenting a new day every 24 hours. The earth also turns around the sun creating dramatic changes in daylength and temperature we refer to as seasons. The moon waxes and wanes, tides come and go all with a predictable period. These predictable patterns are routinely used by all living organisms to predict changes in light and temperature to survive. For example – diurnal animals (those that are awake during the day) return to their burrows before the night sets in. This allows them to avoid nocturnal predators who are much better equipped to find them in the dark. Tidal clocks allow marine invertebrates to synchronize their reproductive behavior to insure procreation. Circannual rhythms prepare species for drastic changes in food availability and dramatic changes in temperature and landscape. Thus, biological rhythms vary in frequency and can be classified by period length. Those with periods greater than a day are referred to as infradian, those with periods less than 24 hours are referred to as ultradian. The most ubiquitous and well known are those with periods of about 24 hours – circadian (circa – about; dian = day)

True biological rhythms are driven by internal oscillating systems. As the environment we live in also oscillates it is often difficult to determine if the rhythm we are observing is an active process (endogenously driven) or a passive response to external stimuli.

Circadian rhythms are a subset of biological rhythms that are characterized by 3 factors:

  1. Circadian rhythms are endogenous. When the organism is placed in constant conditions (e.g., continuous darkness), these rhythms persist Circadian rhythms have a period of about 24 hours. Without environmental cues, circadian rhythms tend to be somewhat longer or somewhat shorter than 24 hours—giving rise to the name circadian rhythms (L. circa = about; dies=day)
  2. Circadian rhythms can be synchronized or entrained by external zeitgebers. There are limits to the period length that a zeitgeber can set. For circadian rhythms the period is no more than 22 – 26 hours. For example, circadian rhythms will NOT entrain to a zeitgeber with an 18 hour rhythm. Light is the most powerful zeitgeber – one second of bright light can synchronize wheel running rhythms of the laboratory rodents. Other zeitgebers include: access to food, exercise, and drugs.
  3. Circadian rhythms are temperature compensated. That is they are independent of changes in the organisms internal temperature. This fundamental property is important because the ambient temperature changes over the course of the day and the seasons of the year. A temperature sensitive clock would slow down at lower temperatures and speed up at higher temperatures making the clock unreliable. While many rhythms have been shown to maintain their periods in vivo and in vitro the mechanism is unknown. And circadian rhythms can be entrained or synchronized by ambient temperature in some organisms.
Circadian rhythms are a subset of biological rhythms that are characterized by 3 factors:

  1. Circadian rhythms are endogenous. When the organism is placed in constant conditions (e.g., continuous darkness), these rhythms persist or freerun. Circadian rhythms have a period close to, but not exactly, 24 hours, giving rise to the name circadian rhythms (L. circa = about; dies=day). Without environmental cues, circadian rhythms tend to be somewhat longer or somewhat shorter than 24 hours.
  2. Circadian rhythms can be synchronized or entrained by external zeitgebers. There are limits to the period length that a zeitgeber can set. For circadian rhythms, the period is no greater than 22-26 hours. For example, circadian rhythms will NOT entrain to a zeitgeber with an 18 hour rhythm. Light is the most powerful zeitgeber – one second of bright light can synchronize wheel running rhythms of laboratory rodents. Other zeitgebers include: access to food, exercise, and drugs.
  3. Circadian rhythms are temperature compensated. That is, they are independent of changes in the organism’s internal temperature. This fundamental property is important because the ambient temperature changes over the course of the day and the seasons of the year. A temperature sensitive clock would slow down at lower temperatures and speed up at higher temperatures, making the clock unreliable. While many rhythms have been shown to maintain their periods in vivo and in vitro, the mechanism is unknown.




Note: footnotes from both drafts were omitted.

  1. The 5R permissions are retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute.
  2. Introduction to Open Education - edX.
  3. Available at OER Commons: "Circadian Rhythms."
  4. Lehigh professor Todd Watkins and his students used this strategy to create a traditionally-published collaborative textbook (Watkins, T. A. (2018). Introduction to microfinance. World Scientific Publishing Company), written over multiple semesters with classes of 20+ students, totaling more than 200 authors.
  5. Available at "OER Brainstorm Document."
  6. John W. Kimball. Kimball's Biology Pages. This content is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license and made possible by funding from The Saylor Foundation.


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Open Pedagogy Approaches Copyright © 2020 by Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle and Jennifer M. Swann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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